C-Day is the start day of Cassey’s Excellent Adventure.

Spending the first night in Shenandoah National Park with Megan made for such a wonderful evening. The next morning when we woke she had to get back to D.C. but I convinced her to stop at a winery first for a wine tasting in the town just over from the Swift Gap Entrance to Shenandoah. Not exactly the frugal van life budget that I was immediately trying to go for, but what’s one more day?! Afterwards, as we walked out to the parking lot, I realized that in this moment in time, I could get into my van and literally drive anywhere I wanted. North, East, South, West, there was no limit. Well maybe the ocean that is a bit limiting in just a car, but oh my was I so excited to just… go.

The night before, I met a couple also with a VW Westfalia who had mentioned that I should hike Mount Le Conte in the Smoky mountains if I was up for the challenge. That was exciting. So Megan and I exchanged our goodbyes and I was off to the Smoky mountains, or at least as close as I could get to them. It was a 6 hour drive and Nancy Mulligan is slower than most, so we set our sites on 81 South and once there I drove until traffic started getting backed up and saw a sign for a KOA [Kampgrounds of America] campsite to pull off and stay in.

I know, a little too boushie for my  budget, but the inter pass where I got off left much to be desired and I was looking for a place to put up the pop top, get a shower, and sit out amongst the trees, so I acquiesced and also took the time to check out my solar situation as it does not seem to meet the demands of what I am trying to do in the van. Lame. But this has triggered me to buy a biolite portable solar 10+ to charge all of the smaller things that I have in the van so I can still run the refrigerator and fan when needed.

After waking in the morning, I fueled up and headed out, en-route the Great Smoky Mountains! I was so excited because the night before I had read in my national park book that the Smoky Mountains is one of the most biodiverse locations alongside the amazon! They have already identified 12,000 new species with the potential for 50-100,000 more to come. Plus, the Smoky’s does not cost any money because there was such a large displacement of humans back in the day they were told that the park would always be free to the public.

When I got closer I started looking for a place to stay and ended up at the Greenbrier RV Park which was still a 30 minute drive to the beginning of the hike in the Smoky Mountains. I checked the National Park campsites but realized that they were pretty much booked and also not nearly as big while also subsequently being even farther of a drive from the hike I was trying to complete.

After setting up camp and enjoying the evening, I went to bed early with the intent to wake and leave for the Alum Cave Trail Parking lot around 0900. I left right on time! After arriving at the parking lot and parking on the shoulder of the road, I started hiking and it was a great day for a hike! There is plenty of foliage along the route so that the sun was not directly shining on me for long periods of time. Also, the trail was not too crowded and there were stretches where I saw relatively few people and had nature all to myself.

It is a pretty steep incline with over 2800 feet of elevation gain within 5 miles, and it was worth every step. Although my legs are still in pain right now and I am still recovering, this trek reminded me why I have chosen to do what I am doing.

After reaching the scenic cave portion of the hike and continuing higher, I ran into fewer people and steadily continued the switchbacks to the lodge. When I reached the Mount Le Conte Lodge and saw how high in the clouds the little cabins sit I instantly wanted to stay. But Alas, I had no permits and no reservations so I washed my hands and face at the water spigot, and continued climbing .02 miles higher to the cliff lookouts overlooking the Smoky Mountains.

WOW! What a clear day it was. I sat on the boulders amongst about 10 other climbers and enjoyed the food I brought which consisted of a yellow pepper cut in half, 1 cliff bar chocolate brownie, and some flat pretzels I had shoved into a gear bag because I had no plastic baggy’s on hand in the van.

After spending extra time there and marveling in the delightful views, I headed back to the lodge and ran into the llamas that bring all of the supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I sat out on a rocking chair on the porch at the dining lodge to watch them eat snacks and hydrate and then I knew it was time to head back down the mountain. The hike down is always worse because it seems to take forever, but the foliage still protected me from the sun and the views were still wonderful and as the afternoon sun turned it was starting to cool down a bit which was also nice.

Back at the bottom where I parked the van, I cooled off and ate more snacks (the beauty of taking your house everywhere with you) and I peeled off my boots and socks, slipped into sandals and then headed back to camp to wind down that evening. It was a wonderful day and I am so grateful to be out hiking these beautiful mountains. I’m headed to NC next to visit a friend. Stay tuned!

This article appeared first on The Cassey Excursion.